Police raided two apartments in Beit Shemesh during municipal elections on Tuesday, arresting eight people and confiscating over two hundred identification cards.
Law enforcement officials believed that the documents were “going to be used in the election” in a fraudulent manner, Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld told the Jerusalem Post.
“We are checking these ID cards,” Jerusalem District police spokesman Shmulik Ben Ruby told the Post. “Some of the people [named on the cards] are abroad so we think they [those arrested] might have used the ID cards or [that] they intended to use them but we don’t know yet. We have to check it very deeply.”
The police released a picture of the IDs as well as a picture of a table full of hats, leading Ben Ruby to surmise that the suspects may have intended altering their appearance and “disguise themselves” or others in order to vote multiple times.
However, he cautioned, it is too early to provide “definite answers” as to the suspects’ exact plan. “We are checking the whole issue,” Ben Ruby said.
MK Dov Lipman, a resident of Beit Shemesh, who raised the possibility of voter fraud in Beit Shemesh during a Knesset hearing last week, praised the local police and applauded “MK Miri Regev for demanding greater oversight in Beit Shemesh in the wake of the committee hearing I asked for because of reports of this type of illegal activity.”
During the hearing, Interior Ministry officials stated that their clerks had uncovered attempts by out-of-towners to register as local residents in order to vote in the election but that these attempts had been unsuccessful and did not lead to an increase in the number of registered voters.
The campaign of Bayit Yehudi candidate Eli Cohen alleged that attempts at fraud went further than just the fake IDs, asserted that a Shas party representative had thrown out ballots with Cohen’s name to forestal people from voting for him.
Ariel Nissim, a lawyer for the Cohen campaign and his representative on the local elections board, told the Post that the official allegedly “stole all the ballots of Eli Cohen from within the voting booth.”
While a party spokesman said that a complaint had been filed with the police, the Jerusalem Post was unable to corroborate Cohen’s claims and a spokesman for Shas incumbent Moshe Abutbul stated that he had no knowledge of the incident.
“In another voting station there was a haredi who came with a forged identification,” Nissim said several hours before the police announced their Beit Shemesh raid.
Nissim also accused the Abutbul campaign of “distributing incitement” in the form of posters that sprung up around the city on Monday evening bearing the face of Aliza Bloch, who was replaced by Eli Cohen as the Bayit Yehudi candidate following a deal between national party chairman Naftali Bennet and the previously independent Cohen.
The posters showed Bloch and Cohen’s faces with the slogan “never forget, never forgive” and were mainly found in national-religious neighborhoods that had previously been strongholds of support for Bloch.
“Abutbul continues to do what he wants as if there were no judgement and no judge,” Nissim alleged, referring to two fines and a censure that Abutbul received from high court justice Salim Jubran earlier this week for violating election laws.
Hanoch Bressler, a spokesman for Abutbul, denied any connection to the posters, attributing them to disgruntled Bloch supporters.
Bloch could not be reached for comment.
The Cohen and Abutbul campaigns continued to trade barbs up until the last minute, intensifying what some residents have described as one of the dirtiest campaigns in Israel.
Bressler accused Cohen supporters of intentionally crashing Abutbul’s telephone system at his campaign headquarters, while Cohen’s campaign critiqued Abutbul for hiring national-religious teenagers from Jerusalem to distribute flyers outside of a polling station in a religious zionist neighborhood claiming that senior Rabbis associated with Bayit Yehudi’s Tekumah faction supported the mayor.
One of the teenagers told the Post that he had not expected to be given such flyers, which were repudiated earlier this week by a spokesman for the Tekumah Rabbis, and said that he had only come to Beit Shemesh “for money.”
“We want to leave,” he said. “We don't want to continue with this.”
National religious voters also objected to an Abutbul banner placed near a voting station in the Ramat Beit Shemesh Aleph neighborhood, an Anglo stronghold which asserted that “truly religious Jews vote Abutbul.”
One ultra-orthodox man standing near the sign said that while he may have worded it differently, the consensus among Rabbis is that one must vote for a religious candidate and that this was the message he believed the mayor to be trying to get across.
Asked about the banner, Bressler replied that Cohen had used electoral advertisements declaring that “one who believes does not fear” and said that the message was essentially the same.
The Abutbul campaign has distributed multiple flyers and posters intimating that the only viable option as religious Jews wishing to live in line with the teachings of the generation’s great Rabbis is to vote for the mayor’s reelection.
“I am not sure who will win the election, but it's clear who wins the "Sinas Chinam [baseless hatred] Color War" competition,” Judah Mischel, a local Rabbi, told the Post.
The banner, he said, “reflects an embarrassingly superficial, judgmental, childish and narrow corrosive view of other Jews. The main thing is to evaluate the candidates based on their merits, and vote for the individual who we feel will lead the city in the most effective and professional way.”
Rabbi Avroham Levanthal, a candidate for city council with the moderate haredi Tov party, which has endorsed Cohen, wrote on Facebook that true religious Jews “shouldn't steal ballots, cause Chilul HaShem [a desecration of God’s name], ‘borrow or rent’ Tedudat Zehuts [ID cards], manufacture rabbinic statements, throw rocks at others, call Jews ‘nazis’, [or] lie to gedolim.”
While the two sides in the election were duking it out, extremist factions among the haredi community boycotted the election, plastering neighborhoods with placards and flyers stating that it is a “grave violation” of the Torah to vote.
In several neighborhoods, posters also urged the adoption of separate voting hours for men and women.
“Chareidi politicians have taken a beautiful religion and have dragged it through the mud - all for political gain and power. They have attempted to make this election about religion and have succeeded. It is Judaism vs. something completely foreign to Judaism,” MK Lipman told the Post.
During the course of the balloting, several dozen extremists allied with the Atra Kadisha movement staged a sit in at a local construction site, asserting that there are ancient Jewish graves in danger of desecration by developers there.
Henry Rome contributed to this report.